By Mark Halawa
It seems like it was only yesterday that I was a young teenager wearing a dish-dasha (white robe) in Kuwait, and now I wear a kipah and live in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is where my grandparents on my mother’s side met. My Jewish grandmother met my Palestinian Muslim grandfather when they were both in their late teens. She later converted to Islam, got married to my grandfather, and lived in Shechem for many years. Following the 1970 Black September uprising, my grandfather-who was a high-ranking officer in Jordan’s Arab Legion-was cashiered when King Hussein purged his army of Palestinians. The family relocated to Kuwait, where oil profits were fueling huge business and construction projects. In Kuwait, my mother met my father and got married.
My father was born in Beisan (Beit She’an in Hebrew), Israel, and owned a successful construction company in Kuwait that built some of Kuwait’s popular landmarks (which I proudly show off to my friends over Google Earth today). My father attended university in Egypt and was a staunch follower of the Nasser school of thought, Pan Arabism-the unification of the Arab World. I was brought up to believe that Israel was the only obstacle to Arab unity, a satellite presence planted by Western colonial powers to keep the Arab world divided. Therefore, Israel had to be destroyed.
Our family was as secular as a family can be in Arabia. My father was more of a deist than an atheist-he believed in a creator, but strongly rejected all religions, especially Islam. My mother wasn’t into religion either at the time, as her priorities were our home and social events. At home we were loosely traditional; we partially observed Ramadan (not the fasting part) and celebrated the two Eid holidays by hosting feasts and visiting friends, family and business partners.
The only religious influence around was my grandfather. Out of love for him, I accompanied him to mosque several times. I never really learned how to pray; I’d stand, kneel and bow in sync with everyone else, then sit on the ground and listen to the sermon. The “sermon” often consisted of the imam’s nonstop screaming and shouting about the evils of the Jews. The imam would tell many stories of the horrible things Jews did to Prophet Mohammad, and explain how Allah doomed them to the level of animals, and that fighting the Jews was the duty of every Muslim who loved his religion.
I’ll never forget how the Imam described Joseph’s brothers as “evil Jewish brothers of the prophet of Islam, who threw him down the well and then sold him into slavery.” The imam then said, “You see how Jews treat their own brothers!” That story angered me. Then, according to custom, the imam finished his sermon with a stream of supplications calling for the destruction of the Jewish people, while the crowd responded to each supplication with a thunderous “Amen!” Even then, as a ten-year-old, this was quite chilling.
After an eventful prayer session, we’d walk back together to my grandparents’ home to have lunch with everyone. The smells of my grandmother’s delicious food took my mind off of the horrible stories I heard at mosque. But as we ate, I’d think to myself, How could my sweet grandmother have belonged to an evil Jewish cult built on killing of innocent people? Is that why she left? And was she a descendant of pigs and monkeys? Or perhaps the imam was exaggerating? After all, my father told me that religious people were crazy: “Never trust people with beards! ”
When my parents went on vacation, they usually left us with our grandparents. As kids will do, I snooped around in my grandparents’ room, and once found my grandmother’s birth certificate, along with old pictures. The last name on the birth certificate was Mizrahi. It struck me as an odd name that I had never heard of. The header on the document was in Arabic, Hebrew and English. I didn’t know what Hebrew looked like, but I recognized the letters I had seen in the small book my grandmother would sometimes read from when she sat alone in the guest room, tears trickling down her face. I suspected my grandmother was reciting Jewish prayers, because on the news, I had seen Jews praying by “Ha’it al Mabka”-the Wailing Wall in Arabic.
Anti-Semitism was commonplace in Kuwait. I remember a show that the Palestinian boy scouts would put on, which ended with the burning of the Israeli flag. One year, I took part in one of the shows. In a twisted way, the organizers wanted to show their success in creating a generation of defenders of the “cause,” which helped them raise millions in donations from sympathizers.
My father was a strong supporter of the PLO himself. Since the 1960s, a portion of his monthly salary was deducted and sent to the organization founded by Yasser Arafat (also an engineer working in Kuwait at the time), which promised to finance armed groups to liberate Palestine one day. Arafat raised money from wealthy Palestinians working in Kuwait, as well as from Kuwaitis and the Kuwaiti government. Later, he’d turn against the same government that helped him become a political force, by aligning with Saddam Hussein against Kuwait. My father said that with the hundreds of millions of dollars Arafat raised, he could’ve created five-star services and infrastructure in the West Bank, but he decided to appropriate the money instead.
In the summer of 1990, when I was 12 years old, our lives changed completely. We were on vacation when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. My father’s business-along with much of the country-was ravaged. Our savings became worthless pieces of paper. We could not return to Kuwait, so we immigrated to Canada. My father managed to sneak back into Kuwait for a few days to retrieve important business documents that would later be useful in recovering compensation from a United Nations fund.
But life in the new world didn’t suit my family well, and they returned to the Middle East, while I stayed in Canada to attend university.
During my final year at the University of Western Ontario, while I was studying at the Weldon Library, I went down to use the pay phone and found a man sitting at a small table cutting up a green apple. From his dress, he looked Jewish, so I went up to him and asked him straightforwardly, “Hi, are you a Jew?”
He looked up with a smile and answered “No, but I like to dress this way.”
I wondered to myself, Are Jewish people supposed to be funny? I introduced myself and told him that I wanted to do something to advance peace in the Middle East. I added that I didn’t believe in religion and didn’t completely hate Jews because my grandmother was Jewish.
He introduced himself to me as Dr. Yitzchok Block, a professor of philosophy from Harvard who taught at UWO. He invited me to sit down, and cut me a piece of his apple. He asked me, “Which side of the family is that grandmother from?”
I replied, “My mother’s side. My father’s parents died before I was born.”
Dr. Block said gently, “If that’s the case, then by Muslim law you’re Muslim, and by Jewish law you’re a Jew. A Jew can convert 10 times and he’ll still be a Jew, and by Jewish law religion is transferred by the mother, which makes your mother Jewish, and makes you a Jew. ”
I was completely dumbfounded. Memories flooded into my mind-my grandmother, the “evil Jews,” mosque sermons, Israeli TV . . .
I ran home and told my roommate, who said, “So that makes you a ‘Mus-Jew.'” I was not amused.
I went up to my room, called my mom, and told her what happened. She told me to stay away from Dr. Block. But I called my grandmother, and we spoke for quite some time, and she told me about her family and younger brother who died in the early days of the establishment of Israel. I finally mustered the courage to ask her, “Tata, are you Jewish?” I never heard my grandmother as distressed in all my life. She cried and told me more stories about her family and how Jews and Arabs used to be friends.
I decided not to pursue the idea that I was a Jew, as I was finishing university and this wasn’t a topic worth upsetting my family over. I did speak on the phone once with Dr. Block and met with his son-in-law, Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, who was a rabbi of a congregation close by. He recommended books to read and mentioned his synagogue.
One evening, while rollerblading on the street, I suddenly fell to the ground, although the street was smooth and there was no visible cause for the fall. I immediately felt that it was a “push” from up above. My right wrist was sprained and bandaged, and I couldn’t go to work for some time.
That Saturday morning, I remembered that Jews went to synagogue on Saturdays. I contemplated going to Dr. Block’s synagogue to check it out, but I was hesitant, thinking, “I look so Middle Eastern; I’ll probably scare people off.” I decided to go anyway. I looked up the address and called a cab, not knowing it would be the last time I would ride in a cab on Shabbat.
When I arrived at the shul, I thought, I’ll just go in, how bad could it be? If worst comes to worst, I won’t come back again. I opened the door, and there stood an Indian gentleman, who handed me a kipah and greeted me with “Shabbat Shalom.” Cool, I thought. I looked around for Dr. Block, and found him standing all the way in the back, with a book in his hands. He greeted me with the same reassuring, warm smile and said, “Good Shabbos.”
I asked him, “What are you reading?”
He replied, “I like to learn on Shabbos.”
“Aren’t you done studying by now?” I asked, thinking to myself that he must be retired at this age.
He answered, “Even if I would live another lifetime, I wouldn’t be done learning.” That sentence didn’t register until much later in life.
The congregation was a mix of all ages, and everyone was responding to the rabbi enthusiastically. I was handed a prayerbook, and someone was calling out the page numbers. Soon I found myself reading a song that I’d be reading every Shabbat from then on:
“Ve-shamru v’nei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat, la’asot et ha-Shabbat le-dorotam berit olam. Bei-ni u-vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi le-olam, ki shei-shet ya-mim ah-sah A-do-nai, et ha-sha-mayim ve-et ha-aretz uva-yom ha-shevi’i shavat va-yi-nafash.”
“And the Children of Israel observed the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, that in six days did G‑d make the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”
I didn’t understand Hebrew, but between my Arabic and the English translation, I could understand the words. “Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever.” It was true. By then, my tears were streaming down.
I met a few people over Kiddush, including an African Falasha gentleman and an Egyptian couple who, when they learned of my birthplace, asked me in Arabic, “Do you speak Arabic?” I felt like saying, “Shush, the Jews are here!”
After the Kiddush, Dr. Block invited me to his home for lunch. I wasn’t used to accepting too much from people, so I politely declined, but he said, “We’re having several guests, and one more won’t be a bother. My wife makes delicious chicken.”
I gave him a big smile and told him it would be my pleasure.
At Dr. Block’s home, there were around 10 people at that table, a mix of students and professionals. The conversation was lively, and people were encouraged to ask challenging questions. Later, we read parts of a story about a queen named Esther and how she strived to save her people from an evil man who wanted to destroy the Jews. It reminded me of the systematic anti-Jewish indoctrination I grew up with. We didn’t finish the story of Esther, and I wondered whether the Jews were saved in the end.
Dr. Block was a great host. He walked me to the door and thanked me for coming over. I told him it felt like I’d done this before-it was weird. He said, “It’s not hard to believe. Every Jew is born with a little Torah and a little menorah inside.” He nudged me with his shoulder and said, “All it takes is for another Jew to bump into him to light it up.”
When I got home, I waited until after sunset to turn my computer on, like I was advised, and I started searching until I found “The Book of Esther.” I devoured the story until the end, sighing with relief that G‑d had saved the Jews from the plot of those who wanted their destruction. I felt a sense of ownership of my newfound Jewish identity, and decided I wanted to experience Shabbat some more. I spoke with my employer, and I started observing Shabbat regularly.
A few months later, I moved to Toronto for further university studies. I started going to shul there too, and I studied at the Lubavitch yeshivah every Tuesday to learn more about my newfound background. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I also taught myself Hebrew, and became more observant of Shabbat laws. Life started to have more meaning for me, and I felt comfortable telling my friends and family I was a Jew.
Initially, my family was tolerant of my Jewish involvement, viewing it as a passing phase. Then my mother started to become more religious as a Muslim. I learned that she had started to cover her hair after my aunt died in a car accident. As she became more observant, she started attacking me with the same words and phrases Muslims use against Jews. My mother’s extreme religious level clashed with my father’s anti-religious beliefs, and they eventually divorced.
I didn’t fare well with my father, either. Once, while we were discussing how terrorism and crime was becoming out of control in the Middle East, I asked, “Why is the life of an Israeli soldier fighting for his people worth less than that of a terrorist civilian aiming to kill and maim others because he was told to do so by a fanatic?” My dad himself had taught me that fanatics brainwash children into becoming suicide bombers, but when the topic involved Jews, the narrative suddenly changed. He called me a Zionist and threatened to remove me from his will.
One day, a rabbi told me that since I didn’t have physical proof of my Jewish claims, and my family had been outside of Jewish life for a few generations, I’d have to convert. I had a difficult time wrapping my head around the idea of conversion. My family didn’t want to speak with me, I had shed the skin I’d worn for the past 26 years of my life to become a completely different person-and now I had to convert? I reminded myself that deep inside, the main reason I wanted to be Jewish was to marry a Jewish girl and continue the family line.
I decided to take the plunge and went to the Beit Din in Toronto. We started the process, and later I was advised to spend some time at a yeshivah in Israel. I went to Israel and fell in love with the land and the people I had been told were “animals” and “killers.” I found a genuine family of Jews from all around the world. Jews of all colors and nationalities, Jews who were creative, innovative, accepting and loving . . . just like the first Jew I encountered at UWO.
After three years of learning Jewish law and philosophy, I was invited for an interview with the Beit Din of Rav Nissim Karelitz. I was tested thoroughly on various topics of law, and I passed flawlessly. I was officially accepted as a member of the Jewish people. My dream finally came true-I could marry and have Jewish children, as Jewish as everyone else.
On August 6, 2014-the day right after Tisha b’Av-I made my way to a Second Temple-period mikvah by the Western Wall in preparation for my wedding ceremony.
It was a beautiful summer day in Nes Harim, at the outskirts of Jerusalem, overlooking the Judean hills. Our guests included close friends from Israel, Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates. My yeshivah rabbis, classmates and business associates also attended. Rabbi Israel Weisel officiated.
My bride Linda and I came from different sides of the planet, both geographically and culturally. Linda grew up the daughter of a Lutheran priest in Finland, and I a secular Muslim in Kuwait, but after our individual journeys to Judaism, this was more than we could both have dreamed of.
Today, I live in Jerusalem with my wife, where we plan to raise a family and build a Jewish home for generations to come, continuing where my grandmother left off.